The call comes during Warm Homes Week (14-17 September), an annual event run by National Energy Action (NEA) which this year focuses on the need for a 'just transition' to net-zero and the impact of Covid-19 on energy customers.
Almost 2.5 million households in the UK are in fuel poverty, with just under 10% living in rural areas where fuel poverty is deeper. These households are more likely to be on lower incomes and have little or no savings to fall back on. Unsecured household debt across the UK is also at a record high at over £14,000, putting increased pressure on consumer finances.
The quality of rural housing stock is also a key issue. Off-grid properties tend to be older, poorly insulated and so harder to keep warm, with 65% of oil heated homes falling into the lowest EPC bands E-G.
These factors mean many rural properties are unsuited to and costly to install heat pumps – the current low carbon solution favoured by government – without expensive and difficult to achieve upgrades.
Malcolm Farrow of OFTEC explains: Improving the energy efficiency of off-grid homes is often a major challenge and, for those properties with the poorest EPC ratings, it can be very expensive.
The recently announced Green Homes Grant scheme will go some way in supporting struggling households to upgrade their homes through simple energy efficiency improvements which will in turn help reduce their fuel bills.
However, this will help a tiny minority and we must recognise that, even with support of such schemes, the cost to bring some of least efficient properties up to scratch is simply out of reach for many. A more pragmatic approach is to upgrade off-grid homes as far as affordably possible and then deploy more cost-effective, fit for purpose low carbon heating solutions which can help overcome the current barriers to decarbonisation.
In support of the government's net-zero ambition, OFTEC is promoting the roll out of renewable liquid fuels such as Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO). This fossil free, sustainable fuel offers a drop in replacement for heating oil with only minor, inexpensive system adjustments required and avoids the need for the costly home improvements required for heat pumps to function effectively.
Malcolm added: Energy efficiency and fuel source are intertwined and these issues cannot be tackled in isolation. The government's focus on heat pumps as the best off-grid solution is misguided as these technologies simply aren't suitable for properties with low energy efficiency without expensive upgrades.
We need to ensure the heating solutions available to rural homes do not exacerbate existing financial and practical challenges. The government must widen its current narrow focus and support a range of low carbon heating solutions that provide options for all. This will help create a competitive market which is the only way to drive down costs.
To further explore the steps needed to decarbonise off-grid homes, OFTEC is hosting a fringe event at the Labour Party conference on Monday 21st September and will be joined by Peter Smith, director of policy and research at NEA, Alan Whitehead MP and Polly Billington, director of UK100. OFTEC is also organising a similar event for the Conservative conference on Sunday 4th October. For more information visit our future heating campaign pages.
A series of digital seminars, workshops and discussions around fuel poverty and other key issues are being run throughout Warm Homes Week. For more information, visit www.nea.org.uk.
*DEFRA fuel poverty statistics, August 2020